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OPINION: Is putting teeth into the Modern Slavery Act the solution to stop corporate supply chain exploitation?

by Emily Kenway | Focus on Labour Exploitation
Thursday, 17 October 2019 11:15 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Evening commuters are seen in central London March 18, 2009. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We need to move away from profit-making as companies’ primary legal responsibility, and towards a wider statutory conception of corporate purpose that includes impacts on workers

Emily Kenway is senior advisor at Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

Exactly five years ago, politicians were busy debating the draft Modern Slavery Bill and whether to include a provision to ensure businesses eradicate slavery from supply chains. This provision, known as the ‘transparency in supply chains’ clause, was eventually included.

Fast forwarding to the present, the government has just closed a consultation on whether it should amend key parts of it. Described as ‘a crucial part of our commitment to end modern slavery’, prevailing wisdom pitches the clause as a core element of the solution, even if it’s not yet working perfectly.

Its flaws are well-rehearsed: it allows businesses to be compliant with the law despite publishing statements that say they’re doing nothing to tackle slavery in their supply chains; there has been no state-run repository of statements; there’s been no list of companies to which the clause applies; and public procurement wasn’t captured.

Perhaps most egregiously, and despite embarrassingly high levels of non-compliance, no company has been sanctioned for failing to meet the terms of the law.

Clearly, this was a piece of legislation without teeth.

But if government now takes action to put teeth into the clause, will this mean we’re tackling slavery in supply chains effectively at last?

No, sadly it won’t. Because transparency reporting is not the answer to ending exploitation in the private sector. In fact, it’s an exemplar of the ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) approach to tackling harms caused by businesses.

CSR, in the permutation that’s commonplace today, took hold from the 1970s onwards as a method of mitigating negative corporate impacts but, crucially, without affecting core business models and operations. Self-regulation – that is, voluntary actions by businesses, rather than obligatory ones under law – is its hallmark: companies get to choose the actions they take.

Whilst the transparency in supply chains statement is required by law, the actions that businesses take and on which they report are entirely self-determined. It’s unsurprising, then, that company actions are all too frequently not those that would make meaningful, sustainable change, but rather those that enable ‘business as usual’ to continue.

Corporate modern slavery statements privilege activities like ‘awareness-raising’ about exploitation amongst staff instead of supporting more fundamental changes like unionisation in supply chains. Respecting freedom of association by recognising trade unions and allowing them access to workplaces would redress the power imbalance between employers and recognise all workers as rights-holders, rather than passive recipients of information.

In fact, of the top ten UK retailers by sales in 2018, five do not mention trade unions at all in their statements. Or, they focus on signing up to ethical certification schemes, despite research showing these don’t actually improve conditions in supply chains, instead of changing their purchasing practices to pay more money for the goods they buy.

Perhaps they sign up to industry codes that boldly state their commitment to eradicating slavery, but place the burden of doing so purely onto already-overstretched suppliers. This isn’t to say that transparency reporting never plays a role in creating positive change, but it must be seen as a means, not an end; it is not the change itself, but a way to shine a light on what change is needed.

And change is needed: instead of expending energy on dentistry for the transparency clause, those fighting exploitation must push for laws that put statutory responsibilities on businesses and empower workers.

This is the only way that long-term improvement of working conditions – both general abuse and the most severe forms of exploitation – can be won. In the UK, we need to introduce joint liability laws, whereby companies would be legally liable for abuses in their supply chains. They already exist in many countries throughout Europe.

We need to move away from profit-making as companies’ primary legal responsibility, and towards a wider statutory conception of corporate purpose that includes impacts on workers.

Trade unions need to be supported in the UK and encouraged through corporate-to-government advocacy overseas. There are many such clear solutions but none of them are currently happening.

Why? Because they target business as usual. But business as usual is exploiting millions around the world. Doubtless, many of those working in corporations are well-meaning but, at some point, we have to say that what we’re doing isn’t working, and reporting on it isn’t going to change that.

Let’s hope that five years from now, on Anti-Slavery Day 2024, we aren’t having the same conversations and instead, business as usual has a new meaning: one with human and worker rights at its core.